Listen to “Quo Vadis?” by Fred Smith
Haley was five when she came to me and said she wanted to set up to sell lemonade in the front yard. Not being the craftsman my father was, I hammered together a very wobbly cardboard and wood stand. After she laid out her cups, pitcher and money box, I stepped inside the house for maybe two minutes. When I returned she was gone – along with the pitcher and cups. Yes, I did panic. I looked down the street and saw her two houses away ringing the bell. I ran and asked her where in the world she was going. She looked up and said, “Dad, cars were not stopping.” So, she decided to go door to door.
Several years later when she was leaving for college we talked about her enrolling in the school of entrepreneurship. She had all the markings of one and it seemed only natural. She did but then two months into the semester she changed. I didn’t understand why and, again, asked her what she was doing. She said, “Dad, they don’t seem to be interested in being entrepreneurs and creating businesses. They only talk about making money.”
I’ve been thinking about that this week in teaching a passage from the book of James about those in the early church who had the same desire. These were not pagans but they were new believers who had allowed themselves to become swept away with the excitement of getting rich. They had looked around and adopted what Richard Rohr calls “the winner script” that, if followed, will lead inevitably to success. “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” I’ve met more than a few of those people in my life. Sometimes they are wannabe entrepreneurs who come with a business plan that describes how their deal is going to cash flow in one year – two at the most – and we are all going to get rich. They have no understanding of the value of a business or the time it takes to build one. They are day traders – for their whole life. Never putting down roots, they are people who move around constantly by wearing out their welcome or getting bored or being habitually restless and wracked with the fear of missing out. Something is always around the bend and putting off until tomorrow what they can get today makes no sense. “Delayed gratification” is silliness to them. Alexis DeTocqueville wrote in his observations of Americans titled, “Democracy in America”:
“As soon as they have lost the way of relying chiefly on distant hopes, they are naturally led to wanting to satisfy their desires at once; and it would seem that as soon as they despair of living forever, they are inclined to act as if they could not live for more than a day.”
Sometimes when I hear the plans about how much money they will make I ask the question, “For what reason?” I do that because, in a sense, James does the same without saying it. He writes about people who want to make money quickly but that is the final goal. They want to move, carry on business, and make money but nothing follows. They have no larger intention or purpose for it. They don’t know where they are going afterwards. Gaining the world but becoming people without souls – and as James goes on to say – people with no substance. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” All of us are temporary. All of us, like grass, wither and die. None of us endure – even though we are made a little lower than the angels. The flare of a match and then smoke. It’s not that we are bad but that we are mortal.
But chasing after what is not ours to have in this life will make us even more unsubstantial people. Isn’t that what DeTocqueville is describing when he writes of those who have lost the way of relying on distant hopes? We will be ghost-like – not just temporary. Trying to add weight or importance with quick wealth to our lives is chasing after wind. It is not in this life that we will be what C.S. Lewis calls the “solid people” in “The Great Divorce.” That is yet to come. Until then we are, as someone has said, made of dust and stars. We are both brief and eternal.
I’ve been reading various accounts of the origins and inner workings of Facebook, Google, Tesla, Uber, and other companies now experiencing both internal conflict and pressure from the outside to change their culture. However, so much of that culture seems to be built on exactly what James is describing. Get rich…and then figure out where they are going. Will it work? We’ll see.